Tunisian court fines TV boss who screened ‘Persepolis’
A Tunisian court on Thursday slapped a small fine on the owner of the private Nessma television station for undermining morality and public order by screening the film “Persepolis,” which showed depictions of God.
The case was seen as a key test of media freedom in Tunisia since the ousting of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Press watchdogs and the US ambassador to Tunis warned it raised concerns about tolerance and free speech in the post-revolution era.
Nabil Karoui broadcast last year the award-winning Franco-Iranian film that recounts the Iranian revolution and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl, and which includes a drawing of Allah, an act considered blasphemy by Sunni Muslims.
The screening prompted attacks on the station’s offices and Karoui’s home by activists linked to Salafism, a conservative strand of Islam.
In its ruling, the court ordered Karoui to pay 2,400 dinars (1,300 euros, $1,700 dollars) for “broadcasting a film that disturbs public order and threatens proper morals.”
Karoui was not in court for the judgement, but later told AFP he was saddened by the court’s decision and how it reflected on a country still in flux after toppling an entrenched dictatorship and sparking the Arab Spring.
“I am very sad. I thought that on this day Tunisia was going to present another image to the whole world than one that tampers with freedoms,” he said.
“I am very worried about the situation of freedom in Tunisia because my conviction sends a very bad message, not only nationally, but also to the entire Maghreb,” he added.
The Nessma station, co-owned by Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi and Franco-Tunisian film producer Tarak Ben Amm, is also broadcast in Algeria and Morocco.
The defence said it plans to appeal against the verdict.
“This verdict is an affront to the freedom of the press. We hoped for a straightforward acquittal on this World Press Freedom Day,” defence lawyer Abada Kefi told AFP.
“Mr Karoui should have been sentenced to three to six months in prison in light of the charges,” prosecution lawyer Rafik Ghak countered, adding he would investigate the option of an appeal.
Several people expressed anger after the announcement of the ruling.
“It’s appalling, 2,400 dinars for somebody who made a mockery of God and offended Muslim feelings,” said one man, who was in tears.
“People mock Allah and pretend that this is freedom of expression,” added a veiled woman outside the courthouse, which was guarded by police.
The trial, which opened in November 2011 and was twice postponed, roused strong feelings pitting those who argued for freedom of expression against violent extremist Muslims.
Tunisia is now led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that won the most seats in October elections, the first polls since Ben Ali’s ouster.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that the choice of Press Freedom Day for a hearing was no coincidence and gave the authorities the chance for a “positive image”.
The media watchdog had asked for the charges to be dropped and called on the judiciary to cease trying such cases on the basis of repressive laws dating from Ben Ali’s era.
The US ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray, issued a statement saying that the verdict against Karoui “raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia.”
He added that he hoped that the courts on appeal would uphold free speech, “a fundamental human right denied Tunisians during the Ben Ali era.”
Amnesty International also denounced the case which he said “put a spotlight on the attacks against freedom of expression” in Tunisia.